Damir Hadzovic: The refugee who became a UFC fighter

Damir Hadzovic: The refugee who became a UFC fighter

Denmark-based Damir Hadzovic talks about his UFC debut in Croatia this weekend, and making his home nation of Bosnia proud.

Damir Hadzovic
Damir Hadzovic

Two weeks have passed since Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb warlord who lead nationalist forces in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the judges at the International Criminal Court. It was a war where over 100,000 people died, and it is estimated that a million Croats and Bosnian Muslims were forced to flee from their homes.

Bosnia wanted to become an independent nation, it had been a part of Yugoslavia, but Bosnian Serbs did not want independence. There were more Bosnian Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, but the Bosnian Serbs had the support of different Serb groups across Yugoslavia, and that support allowed Karadzic and others to start a war that had a devastating impact on the lives of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

This was an issue that Damir Hadzovic took interest in. It was personal for him. As a Bosnian Muslim, he belonged to an ethnic group that was being targeted by nationalists.  His family were forced to leave the country because they were at risk.  It has been 24 years since Damir Hadzovic left his country of birth, and 7 years since his professional MMA debut. Now Damir ‘The Bosnian Bomber’ Hadzovic is just days away from making his UFC debut.

“We left in 1992, I was only 6. My parents could tell that war was coming. My dad told my mum that we should go to her parents place in Visegrad. He felt it would be safer than Gorazde, but it ended up being worse. The Serbian nationalists were already there.

“I was a little kid, but I knew what was going on, having to go through checkpoints where guards carried AK47s, they would question my family about what we were doing and where we were going.  We were fortunate that my mum’s parents had a restaurant and that they had some money.

“And because they were looking for men, there were times when my grandad and dad had to hide in the attic, and when they looked out of the window at night, all they could see were houses on fire. I remember one night when there was a knock on our gate and we had to be quiet so that they didn’t know we were home. They were separating the men from the women and children, and they were just killing the men. Sometimes entire families were killed. I know we are lucky to have got out alive.

“My dad met with a group of guys. They had to walk for a week through the mountains to get back to his parents in Gorazde. He knew it was dangerous, but he had to go and make sure his parents were okay. Some of the men in his group were killed. It would have been like those scenes you see in movies where a group of people are being chased, and they get gunned down. That is how the men died. It was dangerous. Gorazde, when my dad went back, it was so bad it is now called ‘The Town of Heroes’. So many people were murdered there, the entire town was under siege and it was very difficult to get into. My dad stayed there until the end of the war.

“We took the last bus out of Visegrad, many people were killed there too, we were fortunate to escape. My dad sent my mother’s parents with us. I remember when we were about to get on the bus my grandad was really worried and he started praying, but there were Serbian guards there, and my mum kept telling him to stop praying because it was dangerous.

“We left Bosnia and went to Macedonia for a year, but there was no future there for us. The people we lived with were great people, I’ll never forget them, they helped us so much. We were thinking of going to Turkey, but fortunately our family sent us enough money to carry on our journey, and we ended up in Denmark because my mum heard so many good things about the country.

“We had a family reunion when my dad joined us after the war, that was in 1996. This country has been great to us. A lot of my other family members stayed in Bosnia, but we had to escape because the nationalists were killing innocent people. If I had stayed, who knows, maybe I would have been working in a factory, a nobody. Now I’m in Denmark, I am a refugee who became a UFC fighter.”

Despite everything that happened, Hadzovic has no hatred towards Bosnian Serbs, only the nationalists that took part in the ethnic cleansing across Bosnia. His childhood suffered because of the war, but that doesn’t stop him from going back to his country of birth. He smiles when talking about the coverage that the Bosnian media have given him. He gets excited when he talks about the messages of support from Bosnian fans, whilst also mentioning how most of the people of Denmark have shown him love.

“I go back every year, and I’ve been doing that since 1998. I was born in Bosnia; it will always be a part of my identity. My future should have been in Bosnia, but then the war started. Even though I do go back to Bosnia, some people will never accept me, they see me as a Dane. But Bosnia is a part of me and if you look at the flag I carry, I have love for both countries. Even when I go to Bosnia, I always go to Sarajevo and train. I’m always looking to learn. I would love to be able to help promote Bosnian MMA. They need some help because it is tough to train there, but it is something I want to promote when I can.

Hadzovic showcases his part-Danish, part-Bosnian flag

“Dnevni Avaz, the biggest newspaper in Bosnia, they’ve written about me a couple of times, when I signed with the UFC they gave me some attention. I felt so good when it was in the newspaper, it was in the physical newspaper, so that it felt real. I am proud of that.

“I am looking forward to fighting in Croatia. I have had a lot of people from Denmark and Bosnia messaging me, they tell me that they are coming to the UFC event with flags and that they are coming to support me.”

Welcoming Hadzovic (10-2) to the UFC is Mairbek ‘Beckan’ Taisumov (24-5), the Tiger Muay Thai based fighter has been in the UFC for 3 years and has won 4 of his 5 fights in the Octagon. This is not your typical UFC debut fight, Hadzovic could have followed the traditional path and faced another fighter that was new to the promotion, or who had one or two UFC fights on his record. Instead he takes on an opponent who has been on an impressive streak with the promotion.

‘Beckan’ was due to fight in January, but complications with his Visa meant that his fight at UFC Fight Night 81 was cancelled.  The M-1 Global veteran has a deserved reputation as a technical striker, and is the best stand-up fighter that Hadzovic has faced. The Rumble Sports lightweight goes into this fight as the underdog, and facing a step up in competition that he has not had before, but remains happy with both of those situations. He feels he can go into the cage and perform with less pressure on him and secure the win.

“It is a tough fight, but I’d never turn down a fight, I would never say no to anybody. I know it sounds crazy but I would fight Conor McGregor if the UFC asked me to fight him. Fighting is an opportunity to show how good I am. The win doesn’t always matter, especially if you put on a performance and show fans and the UFC what you are about.  And that is why I love MMA. Then compare it to a sport like boxing, where a perfect record is important, but you pick and choose who you fight.

“I am happy to get a guy of this calibre. It is a win-win situation for me because many people are expecting me to lose, I am the underdog. He has everything to lose. He should be worried about me because he could lose to a guy that is new to the UFC and not a name yet. I think I am a better fighter than him, although his wrestling might be a little better.

“I could have taken an easier fight, sure, but fights like that could have happened on Cage Warriors or Venator. I wanted a UFC fighter in a UFC fight. I know it is a big risk, but god damn, there will be a good reward.

“I look at my opponent’s fights briefly so I know what to expect, but my coaches, Tue and Arnar, are the ones who really break down the fights. They build the game-plan for the fight and make sure the training has some focus towards the fight. We don’t focus entirely on the opponent, we train everything, because you never know when an opponent gets injured. I’ve had fights where we had to change the game-plan because the new fighter had a different style.

“I can see myself knocking him out. I would love to make a statement. I don’t want a decision win, but I would take it. My performance in the first fight is important because I want to show fans what they can expect of me.

“I remember when people looked at my fight with John Maguire, how everyone thought Maguire was going to win. I’m never going to be upset about that stuff. But then I went and looked at the comments after the fight, people were talking about how good I looked. It is going to be the same with Taisumov, because there is less pressure on me, and then I can go and see the reaction of the fans.”

Hadzovic emphasises that he will look to win the fight and entertain his employers, as well as the fans. Hadzovic is also realistic and understands that taking tough fights and losing can put him at risk of being cut by the UFC, but he believes that no matter the outcome of this bout, the UFC will give him multiple fights in the Octagon.

“I am confident that they will,” explained Damir.  “I know they like exciting fighters, and people say I am exciting. I know that winning is never enough, look at Fitch, he wins and beats top fighters, but he was too expensive for someone that doesn’t entertain fans. I respect every aspect of fighting, but you have to entertain.”

Hadzovic revels in his new role as a UFC fighter

When he steps into the Octagon on Sunday, 11 months will have passed since his last professional fight. Hadzovic is quick to shut down any talk of ring-rust, instead he used that time to develop and learn new skills.

“I don’t believe in [ring rust], since I’m always training and sparring when we need to, never hard sparring though. My last fight was also a year since my win over Delaney. I am always evolving, always trying to be better, it doesn’t matter to me. When I have a fight, then I think about a few certain things about my opponent and focus on fight conditioning, but when I have not got a fight I just like to have fun, learning and evolving. And that is what I have been doing.”

The Rumble Sports fighter is on a 6-fight win streak, but is only concerned about the challenge in front of him. Hadzovic believes that he enters the UFC as an unknown commodity to most, hoping to impress fans who have never seen him fight before.

“My win streak is good, but it doesn’t really matter to me, because fighters can also be dangerous when they are on a losing streak. I look at every fight individually and you can only be as good as you are in this fight. And now I’m in the UFC, the past doesn’t matter that much. I have to show UFC fans that I have got what it takes and I can perform on the big stage.”

The last 18 months have been frustrating for the Octagon debutant. There comes a time for many European fighters when they struggle to find decent opposition on the regional scene, which sometimes ends up with fighters having to travel further abroad, taking fights against lesser opponents or having to wait and be hopeful that the UFC come calling. Hadzovic found himself in a situation where his reputation meant that his management team were struggling to find opponents to face him, and he also had to look to India for a fight, which unfortunately didn’t work out.

“Nobody wanted to fight me. I didn’t believe it at first,” he revealed on his plight to stay active. “I’ve seen the emails and know that it is true. It is an ego boost knowing that fighters in Europe aren’t willing to risk fighting you.”

“I was also supposed to fight in Mumbai last year, but that didn’t happen. I had my visa sorted, I literally just got it and then the day after, I sparred and got injured. I couldn’t do anything for a month. It was minor and it isn’t a problem now.”

Intensiti FM, his management team, were in discussions to arrange a fight for Hadzovic on the next Venator card against Alexander Sarnavskiy. The Italian promotion has been making a lot of noise since their debut card last year, with impressive fight cards and a leading-man that has a unique approach to getting attention. He would have fought on the upcoming Cage Warriors card as well. Hadzovic’s goal was to become a UFC fighter, but he understood that his team needed to think ahead and find alternative fights. His management team were able to help Damir achieve one of his goals and the frustrations paid off as they got him the opportunity that he wanted, a UFC contract.

“We were arranging a fight with ‘The Tiger’, a Bellator veteran. That fight would have happened in May. I fought for them before when I beat Ivan Musardo. He had a lot of power, the game-plan was to wait until he faded, and then I went forward and made him quit. I really liked Frank and Alex at Venator, they are really professional. That experience was great, they treated me so well, and they are so friendly.

“Then this opportunity to sign with the UFC came and I jumped all over it. Graham Boylan is my manager, and he said I would get the first shot at the title when Cage Warriors came back if I don’t get into the UFC. I’m very happy that he got me into the UFC. I am so thankful that I have had people like Graham and Ian there. Ian Dean has also done a lot, I want to thank him, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He always helps me, even with the small things.”

‘The Bosnian Bomber’ came to the attention of UKMMA fans because of his two-fight stint with Cage Warriors. He was originally supposed to fight Tommy Maguire at Cage Warriors 66, but an injury lead to Maguire withdrawing from the bout. John Maguire, Tommy’s brother, was happy to step in. Hadzovic entered what was the biggest of his career as an underdog and caused a big shock.

“I fought John Maguire in my first fight for Cage Warriors. I am proud that I knocked him out. I think it was a beautiful execution. I remember he said in an interview that I hadn’t knocked anybody out and that I couldn’t finish him. The Maguire fight is the biggest fight I had, it was the one that made people notice me. I was impressed by Cage Warriors, it was so professional, everything about it was professional.”

He followed that victory over Maguire with a decision win over Martin Delaney at Cage Warrors 69. Attempts were made to find Hadzovic a fight, but he noted that those ranked above him refused to fight him, thus making him the number one contender by default.  Hadzovic stated that Stevie Ray, who was the Cage Warriors Lightweight Champion at the time, also refused to fight him.

“I became the number one contender after beating Maguire and Delaney, but then Stevie Ray didn’t want to take a fight against me. He didn’t want to give me the opportunity. He said he wasn’t able to because they had a baby on the way, and I was like ‘what the fuck, are you in this for fighting?’

“I think he was trying to protect his record, and he wanted to get into the UFC. And then a few weeks before his child was born, he went and fought in the UFC, but he wouldn’t fight me four months before that. If I was the champion, I would take any challenge, especially when you have a legitimate guy like I was. I understand he had some issues, but what about me? I’m not rich. I work as a bouncer, every weekend, that is what I live on, I wanted to get into the UFC as well, he was my ticket.”

Like the majority of professional MMA fighters, Hadzovic has to work to support himself. He spends his weekends as a bouncer at an Irish pub in Copenhagen. You can also find videos of Hadzovic refereeing and judging MMA fights in Denmark. He has been fortunate enough to have two friends who have sponsored him and have provided financial support, which has allowed him to spend the last 2 months focused on MMA, and instead of having to worry about having the money to pay the bills, he has been able to prepare for his UFC debut by training twice a day. He does note, however, that he will probably go back to work, depending on whether he gets a “50 Gs” bonus.

“I only work on the weekends, I’m going to carry on doing that, it all depends on my financial situation. I am fortunate that two sponsors have been looking out for me financially for the last two months. My good friend Mads Kristensen from Tattoo Fashion, he runs the biggest tattoo chain in Denmark. And an artist friend, Kristian Von Hornsleth, he designed my walkout shirt for my fight against Delaney. They have helped me train twice a day. I don’t have to pay them back, they are friends and they believe in me, I am so thankful for their support.”

Hadzovic doesn’t have a traditional martial arts background, he joined a local MMA gym when he was 20. Bodybuilding training was his first love, and when he did enter the gym he found that his size put him at a disadvantage. A 9-year journey that involved moving 300km from Esbjerg to Copenhagen has led to Hadzovic getting into the UFC, a remarkable fact considering that his first experience of watching a UFC fight was a negative one.

“I remember when I first watched a UFC fight, I was shocked. I saw two guys going into a cage, I thought it was crazy. It was mental.

“And then I went to the gym and I realised how technical it is. I remember this little guy who owned me on the ground. I was this huge guy with huge muscles, and he submitted me. This was back in Esbjerg when I first started training,under Daniel Hansen. I used to think that I was the shit because I was so big, but that made me want to learn.

“I fell in love with MMA, the warrior spirit, and how it helps people. I also love it because it exposes fighters, when the adrenaline is pumping, it reveals who you are. I never thought I would make it so far when I started. My first goal with training was to learn how to fight. I won my first fight and everyone told me I had this great power in my hands.

“I don’t remember how I met Tue Trnka (head coach of Rumble Sports), but the Danish MMA community is small. I didn’t have a manager, I had won a few fights, he spoke to me about how he could help. I knew that having him on my side would be great, and he was never about the money.

“I decided to let him manage me, and he got me a fight in Poland where I made some good money. I couldn’t believe that he got me on national TV in Poland. And then he talked to me about moving, I knew I was the topdog in Esbjerg, and I knew that it would lead to that team closing, but I had to do it. I moved to Copenhagen in 2013, and I’m in the UFC 3 years later.”

Hadzovic at his Rumble Sports home

The lightweight fighter’s 2 losses have come against respectable opponents, but most notably, they were welterweight fights. His first loss was against Andreas Stahl, the judges came back with a unanimous decision. The Swede eventually signed with the UFC, where he went 0-2. The fight against Stahl ended up having a positive impact on Hadzovic, he says it helped him recognise where he needed to improve.

Hadzovic’s next fight also ended in a loss, this time it involved a trip to Poland to face Krzysztof Jotko, who is currently riding a 3-fight win streak in the UFC. Hadzovic says that he can fulfil his potential at lightweight as he wasn’t a big welterweight, but he also believes that he would have performed better had he found his new team earlier.

“I’ve definitely learnt from my losses. I’ve lost to Jotko, a UFC middleweight fighter, that fight was at welterweight. I think he ran away from me that entire fight, he just took me down a few times. I think he got the home advantage victory. It was a good experience, 10,000 people in the arena, on national TV.”

“The loss against Stahl is one I accept. He wrestlefucked me, he just kept taking me down and kept me down. I was so pissed that I lost that fight. That was back when I trained in Esbjerg and I was the top dog there, so I didn’t have the training partners that I needed. We didn’t even have a wall to train against, without a fence, and that is where I kept getting taken down.

“If you look at my fights since then, I’ve definitely learned and improved a lot and now I work with top-level guys. I would like to be undefeated, but you do learn from losses, I used to think that I was the shit, I’ve now learnt from it and gotten a lot better.”

“They were also bigger. I never used to cut that much weight, I had no clue about it. I would do a bit of skipping and that was it. I always felt uncomfortable at welterweight because I was smaller than my opponents so they had a physical advantage, but that might have also been because I wasn’t at Rumble Sports then either.

“In my first fight with Rumble I took a fight against Nick Osei on short notice, and that was at a higher weight class, and I felt comfortable there. I think that was because of Rumble Sport. I became much better when I went to Rumble.”

Hadzovic’s eyes light up when he talks about his coaches and training partners at the Copenhagen gym. His parents still reside in Esbjerg, but they are looking at moving to be closer to their son. His family is 300km away, but he also views the Rumble Sports team as extended-family members. He mentions how his life and career improved once Tue Trnka got in touch with him. His head coach’s support and words mean a lot to the 29-year-old and when he steps into the UFC Octagon on Sunday, he’ll be remembering what his coach says to him.

“Tue has said that we should go out there and just perform to our best, that we shouldn’t think about winning or losing, that we should just focus on being our best. He says that he will be disappointed if we don’t perform, that we should take everything we do in training into the fight. If he is better than you, we go back and learn from it. I love that mentality, because it makes me perform better.”

Hadzovic with friend and training partner, Nicolas Dalby

The preliminary card’s headline fight is a welterweight clash featuring Hadzovic’s stablemate Nicolas Dalby, who will compete against Zak Cummings. Dalby’s relationship with Hadzovic is one that he speaks fondly of. He mentions that Dalby is a phenomenal fighter and that they have a great friendship, and that Dalby’s experience in the UFC has helped him.

“I love that we’re both on the same card, we’ve done it before on a previous card. It is great, because we lean on each other and joke around a lot. Mats Nilsson told us about the UFC process, and Nicolas has also told me how the UFC Fight Week runs, so I am prepared and ready for Fight Week.”

He also mentions that he is a student of MMA and always wants to learn. Now a committed team player, Hadzovic says he would never consider moving to a new camp, emphasising that Rumble Sports will always be his team, but that travelling and spending a little bit of time at another team can help him grow and develop as a fighter.

“I went to the U.S in 2012 and spent a few weeks out there, that was when I realised that I could be a UFC fighter. I was able to spar with a few UFC fighters. I realised that I could be in the UFC in the future. I can see myself doing some training in the U.S, not moving out there, but just some training to learn. I think I would go to American Top Team or Jackson-Wink, just so that I can learn and become a better fighter, but Rumble Sports is always going to be my home.”

If Hadzovic does decide to spend time at American Top Team, he will be greeted by Mirsad Bektic, another fighter who had to leave Bosnia because of the war, and Hadzovic is clearly a fan of one of best prospects in the UFC.

“I watch every UFC fight. I am a big UFC fan. I definitely keep an eye on Mirsad, because he is a fellow countryman. I think he has been phenomenal so far. He has shown everything, great heart, great technique, he always goes forward. Although, maybe he goes forward too much, he might be a little too aggressive! He is really talented, you can see that he has the right talent and mentality. He is going to be one of the best in the featherweight division.”

Despite his UFC debut coming against a tough fighter, walking into the UFC Octagon is far from the toughest challenge the Bosnian-born fighter has faced. Hadzovic is ready to makes the Bosnian and Danish fans that are travelling to support him proud.

Find Damir on Twitter at @DamirHadzo.

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